When the news came of the staff of the Bengali daily Janakatnha demonstrating in front of their imposing office at Dhaka’s Bangla Motor for arrear wages up to 26 months, many must have been shocked. What, going without pay for more than two years! How could they survive for so long?
Well, as a journalist myself, I was not surprised at all. Firstly, because such non-payment is a common trend among many newspaper owners, who usually are business tycoons in some field or the other. They seem to believe that journalists are not humans and therefore, do not need to eat, pay their rent or tuition fees for their children’s school, all so necessary to maintain a standard life.
Now let me be very clear, this aberration does not apply to several media houses which have a proper pay structure, yearly bonus, transport facility and other perks.
Obviously, these are the thriving ones.
However, it won’t be wrong to say that a journalist, in his/her working life has faced some experience of utterly callous managements, which ran or still run in some media houses, based on the perverse belief that, at the end of the month, salaries need not be paid or, there won’t be a problem if it’s paid after much prevarication and delay.
Interestingly, these owners will not shut down the newspaper either. So what is the actual tale here?
The Janakatha episode, coming less than a week before election and a new year, opens up an age old problem which no government has ever addressed with assertiveness and promptness shown in other areas.
The salary is uncertain but work has to be flawless
I once had an altercation with an editor, not over the salary but over the non-maintenance of air conditioners during the height of summer.
Everyone was working and sweating, yet air conditioners in certain rooms, belonging to those close to management, were in working order.
And, in such a condition when comparison was made of someone's work with a report in The Economist, one had to stand up and say: if you want a report like that, then at least make sure that the facilities are equal for the newsmen concerned. I am sure, at The Economist, no one has to work without proper ventilation and cooling facilities.
Around 15 years ago, working for a daily newspaper, the dreaded ‘salary stuck’ situation came my way. While two months passed, there was no news of the payment.
Worse still, some people within the newspaper were actually talking the language of the owner, which created a rift among journalists. Sensing trouble, I quickly took over teaching and another part time work.
Interestingly, when some of the informers in the office learnt of my ‘other’ income sources, they began to pour poison into the ears of the management.
So, what they would have preferred is to see that a person is working without pay but not taking up any other part time work to ensure a regular in flow of cash. I found this attitude downright reprehensible and warped.
In fact, savvy journalists always have several lines of income because loyalty to just one institution may often result in locking the flat and fleeing from the landlord.
Are you laughing? Don’t, this is not a joke.
In my 25 plus years with journalism, full time and part time, some really tragic scenes came my way: a superbly gifted senior journalist forced to sell his prized book collection to meet the bills, a writer desperately going from person to person to get the medical fees for a sick child and many more.
On the other hand, those who were practical (I may fall in this section), swiftly began something on the side, either a small business, or in most cases, teaching. Many switch over to the development sector while keeping up writing to maintain the link with journalism.
Those who were astute used connections to arrange funds to open NGO’s, think tanks, research bodies or PR agencies.
Many of the latter now drive swanky SUVs, live in plush apartments, take holidays in exotic locations and send their children to the best schools. I salute them!
When so-called social analysts question the journalism ethics of these people, I cannot but tell them that if they had not been shrewd, then today, many would be struggling to survive. Sometimes, one gets an eerie feeling that society adores the dilapidated 50cc bike-riding journalist who has trouble making ends meet.
The problem of business houses owning news media outlets
In Bangladesh, almost 95 percent of the media houses, be it print, online or broadcast, have a business group behind it as either a main or co-financier.
The same is true for well-known media outlets across the world. Media houses with professionalism at all levels are profit making and are usually at the top, whereas those which have revenue deficits gaps plus other problems, languish at the bottom.
Shockingly, in my experience I have seen the grotesque process of insensitive and misguided moves by management pull down a leading establishment.
Why would I deliberately kill my own success?
As the common belief goes, whenever business conglomerates face some financial pressure, they are ill-advised to withhold payment for their media bodies to channel the money elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the task of ‘managing’ the disgruntled journalists falls on the editor, who then becomes the tool of sowing divisions among staff.
In many cases, the respective business house is not struggling at all or, the financial difficulty just a minor, temporary hurdle.
When such people, who are responsible for arranging the wages for employees are seen posting images on Facebook, dining, gallivanting in some foreign land or flaunting a massive lavish mansion or a designer car, a sense of shock morphs into rage.
We are not sure what happened in the case of Janakantha but their wage issues reportedly are more than five years old.
The question is who will step in to ensure that something is done so the people get what is owed to them?
In consequence, the whole industry suffers. That is not the end because the long term implication is that news of non-payment of journalists is widely publicised, driving away potential young people with a knack for writing and creative ideas from joining a noble profession.
To attract talented young people into media, the industry needs a major shake up with effective legal provisions ensuring stern actions against business houses which regularly report problems in settling staff dues.
Many journalists often ask: when will it dawn upon media house managements that journalists are not robots?
I think financiers will begin to act responsibly when they actually start to read and take seriously what is being published by their own media houses and stop selfishly using a newspaper, agency or channel as a social tool to enhance their own image.
Funnily, they don’t realise when they pay regularly, their reputation will only soar.
As for many reliable media houses (Bangla Tribune included), market credibility plus respectability have been ensured by a strict adherence to some fundamental worker-employer norms.
Towheed Feroze is a news editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.